A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Behind my buddy’s house, north of Todd, in the shadow of the Amphibolite Mountains, a little-traveled trail parallels a small creek that flows under rhododendrons and through soaring forest. It’s

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Behind my buddy’s house, north of Todd, in the shadow of the Amphibolite Mountains, a little-traveled trail parallels a small creek that flows under rhododendrons and through soaring forest. It’s

In Search of Pocket Waterfalls

Behind my buddy’s house, north of Todd, in the shadow of the Amphibolite Mountains, a little-traveled trail parallels a small creek that flows under rhododendrons and through soaring forest. It’s not a wide creek, but nonetheless, Julie gives it a hard look, calculating how she’ll cross. I can hear what she’s thinking: One big step to that rock, then a little step to that rock, and maybe a big jump the rest of the way. This trail doesn’t have a name. I’m not sure that this creek even has a name. But it’s best not to underestimate the challenge of rock-hopping a mountain stream, regardless of its size.

The Amphibolites aren’t the best-known mountains in North Carolina, although they are impressive once you meet them. The range rises more than 5,000 feet in elevation in a grand, humpbacked escarpment that snakes across Ashe and Watauga counties, and separates the North and the South forks of the New River. They’re composed of a special sort of hard metamorphic rock called — surprise! — amphibolite. It’s coarse-grained and toughened with amphibole and plagioclase feldspar, minerals you will not find listed in the nutrition chart on the back of your Wheaties box.

Amphibolite rock is hard stuff. It weathers well and holds up to erosion better than a lot of other rock types. But that doesn’t stop water from trying. All along this creek, small waterfalls plummet and cascade. These aren’t thunderous cataracts that shake the ground, but pocket-size plunges that you might miss if you’re not careful.

And I’m careful.

• • •

I have a thing for a certain kind of waterfall: small ones. Miniature, even. I’m drawn to waterfalls that fall a foot or three or five. Anything over head-high seems an extravagance. I understand the attraction of the marquee torrents. North Carolina is known for its bounty of waterfalls, and we have some gollywhoppers. Looking Glass Falls clocks in at 60 feet. Linville Falls rocks and rages for 90 feet. Whitewater Falls is the highest east of the Rockies, at 411 feet. They’re all impressive. They make great photographs. Rainbows arc through their sun-kissed mists. I’m sure that people have proposed at all of these falls at one time or another.

They just don’t do much for me, personally. I know I’m in the minority, but many of the well-known waterfalls are photographed so often, in perfect weather, at the peak of fall color, that the experience is a bit of a letdown when I get there. Many attract crowds, and I have a thing for crowds, too. It’s not a good thing.

Hidden among the peaks of the Amphibolite Range are small yet alluring waterfalls, like this one near Creston. photograph by Tommy White

But I do like a pocket-size tumble that plummets and plunges in two-foot-tall stairsteps and mossy slides and crystal-clear pools. Such waterfalls seem intimate. Knowable. And there’s an embarrassment of their riches along this Amphibolite Mountain creek. There seems to be a babbling tumble every hundred yards or so, the water pouring over a mossy ledge or through a cleft in a chunk of ancient stone.

I rock-hop a few feet to the base of a lilliputian cataract and bend low, feeling the cool air on my face. Waterfalls create their own microclimates and microhabitats, nourished by the near-constant splash and spray of tumbling water and its cooling effects. And the water doesn’t have to tumble from the heights. A cascade of two or three feet is enough to keep the air around the plunge pool moist and relatively chilly. Rocks host feathery mosses and liverworts, the oldest land plant known to the planet. Small waterfall pools can hold native brook trout and a host of salamanders. Even butterflies will seek out small waterfalls to “puddle” in the wet muck and probe for vital minerals.

These so-called “spray zones” or “spray cliffs” can be incredibly active spots to sit by quietly and chew on a grain bar with your eyes peeled and senses tuned. Try that at a multistory tumult, and you’ll get doused at best; at worst, you’ll be swept into the river only to wind up on CNN.

• • •

Back on the trail, Julie and I keep climbing. This is steep country, and the creek narrows as we gain elevation. We reach a hogback ridge between two taller summits, but there’s not much view, and the day is getting away from us, so we turn around to retrace our steps.

When the trail crosses the creek, I instinctively glance upstream and down, looking for a telltale slash of white water. Oh, yes. I see it. But this one will take some work: a hands-and-knees shimmy under the rhododendrons, then a clamber over a mossy downed tree to the base of a double-drop cascade that pours over each side of a rock slab. All told, that thing must be 20 inches high, easy.

The secluded waters of Three Top Creek, located between Creston and Todd, draw trout and waterfall-loving hikers alike. photograph by Tommy White

When I arrive, raked by rhododendrons and poked by briars, I lie on my belly and check out the waterfall. The scene looks like a scale model of something out of Middle-earth. Countless tiny red sporophytes rise from the wet rock mosses like a miniature forest. A snail clings like a rock climber to a cliff face. Behind the veil of frothy water, a tiny cave yawns, dark and mysterious, perfect for a gnome picnic. I bet a salamander or two have popped the question in there.

It’s a curious way to consider waterfalls, seeking out the overlooked and unregarded. I’ll give you that. But here’s something else to consider: Whitewater Falls wasn’t born in a day. It takes a lot of time to groove out a mountain face. Who’s to say that, a thousand centuries hence, this little waterfall won’t have worked its way through this rock, through this creek bed, through this valley, to tumble a hundred feet or better in some gollywhopper bed of the future?

Water and time. Like the grand potter’s hands, they shape the world.

This story was published on Sep 25, 2023

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.